A moment of national unity bathed in triumph
Last weekend marked the 50th anniversary of our first trip to the moon. I was not yet 7 years old, so was just old enough to sense the energy and pride that consumed our nation. Few people younger than I will remember the electric excitement of that week. The relevance of a grand governmental undertaking and national unity on the matter bears some relevance today.
I watched the lunar landing late on a Sunday evening, July 20, 1969. As I recall, it was a delicious festival on a perfect barefoot summer night. I was too young to understand the consequence of the effort of that night, and to be honest, the moon never looked that far away. My father was then a professor at Johns Hopkins applied physics lab, and he somehow always made the heavens accessible. Moreover, he was a Purdue graduate, as was Neil Armstrong. As transplanted Hoosiers in a Maryland suburb, my mom and dad felt a kinship with the space program. Gus Grissom’s sacrifice and my dad’s work with early satellites made all of it seem very personal.
What I did not know until later, is that everyone across the country felt the same way. My first hint of the universality of the moment came in the weeks before Halloween when the search for an astronaut costume proved daunting. As the years passed, and I moved around the world, the largeness of the feat became clear. Not only did most Americans of my age remember clearly the landing, I have had conversations about the lunar landing in Germany, Egypt and Zimbabwe, all started by my hosts.
I remember clearly the night of the landing, the grainy images on a small black and white TV, and the suited newscaster. Sadly, I remember nothing of the immortal words spoken by Mr. Armstrong. The living room was packed and loud. My next-door neighbors were deaf, and in the days before close captioned TV they relied upon my mother to write out the significant events on a school notepad. I was a tired 6-year-old, and headed to bed soon after Mr. Armstrong bounded away from the lunar module.
The 1960s were a difficult and contentious time. It was apparent even to a 6-year-old, though I understood nothing of the reasons behind it. All I knew was that in the year before, smoke rose from Washington, D.C. and a place called Vietnam kept my neighbor’s dad away from home. This space flight seemed to capture all of everyone’s attention, and from my seat on the living room floor wrapped in an old blanket, all was fine.
As the years passed, I began to appreciate more fully the seductiveness of those unifying moments along with the wonder of the achievement. Tens of millions of Americans watching that space flight had been born before the Wright Brothers’ first flight. The span from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base saw many millennia of human dreams compressed into a lifetime.
Moments of national unity are seductively rare, but they always seem to come along just as we need them. Too often, they are wrapped in tragedy, but this one was bathed in triumph. There are lessons in that, and in its replication.
In the years following the Apollo missions, criticism of them became inevitable. They were costly, failed to achieve all their goals and diverted resources from other more pressing needs. The entire Apollo program cost about $150 billion in today’s dollars; a pittance really, hardly worthy of note in today’s federal budget.
It is also a mistake to think that we have need for frequent moments of national unity, even in a polarized political environment. After all, the years after Apollo 11 were hardly serene, and maybe that is the wrong way to think about it. One element of our national success is the in the success of what Edmund Burke called little platoons. These are our neighborhoods, places of worship and clubs. As exciting as Apollo 11 was, we all absorbed that moment in our own little platoons of extended families, neighbors or co-workers. All that excitement and feeling of national achievement could be shared only with those around us. No matter what we saw on that old TV, we really shared it only with family, friends and neighbors.
Last weekend we spent a couple of days remembering or retelling the story of Apollo 11, and basking in its warm memory. Now there will surely be another ugly tweet or intemperate remark by some elected leader, reminding us that national unity is elusive. Maybe the way out of turmoil comes not from some grand moment of national unity, but in triumphs of purpose within those small groups around us.
Maybe the best lesson of Apollo 11 is the one I could not hear well that night 50 years ago. It is that all great achievements of humankind come from a single small step, from beginning to end.
Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.